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4G Wireless: Truth or Fiction?

By Jeff Kagan
Jan 13, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Now it's official: All four major wireless networks are now claiming they are 4G. Oh really. Aha. Baloney. I really have learned to admire wireless marketing over the years, but there are a few parts that are just wrong. This is one of them. The wireless industry is crossing the line. If the carriers don't watch out, they may hurt themselves in the long run, when customers and investors will no longer believe the words coming out of their mouths.

4G Wireless: Truth or Fiction?

At this point, no carrier is all 4G. The media is getting smart on this issue. I was interviewed several times on all this marketing-driven confusion. So who is really ahead with 4G, and does it all really matter yet?

It seems no carrier feels it can survive being left behind in this rapidly changing industry. Why the rush? Remember, Ford once said customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black. That was fortitude. However, in today's world we see the tail wagging the dog.

Who's Got What

The furthest along with 4G is Clearwire and its partner Sprint. They have been installing their WiMax in markets over the last two years and calling it "4G." It does provide a faster signal, but it's debatable whether this is real 4G.

Then T-Mobile saw 4G as a marketing opportunity. It got a late start with 3G, so it wanted to jump over that entire mistake and capture attention in this new world. T-Mobile uses HSPA+. There has been lots of buzz about how this is more marketing than reality at this point. Is it?

Verizon Wireless announced its 4G plans a few weeks ago. It uses Long Term Evolution, or LTE. It may have an aggressive plan for rolling out this fast service, but it is just in the beginning, and there's a long way to go. In fact, Verizon has no LTE phones in the market yet -- just cards for laptops. A look at its national advertising shows Verizon trying to claim the 4G spot. Is it jumping the gun?

AT&T Mobility didn't have plans to announce its 4G efforts until later in the spring with its own LTE, similar to Verizon's. However, with everyone else talking about 4G, AT&T didn't want to be left behind, so it just announced it is starting with HSPA+, similar to T-Mobile. Do two wrongs make a right?

All these carriers are talking about 4G, but all of them describe it with different technologies and different speeds. Some are only a few times faster than 3G, and others are 10 times the speed. That's a big difference isn't it? Calling it "4G" makes it all OK?

Marketing Gs They Don't Have

Living in the world of marketing can be a very strange place. Who sets the meaning for the terms? The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, says none of these networks are really 4G. However, since today the competitors seem to care about marketing more than standards, the ITU is a toothless tiger.

So none of these top four networks are really 4G yet. That will change. If we move out a year from now, we will surely see 4G in many markets -- but these claims are really putting the horse ahead of the cart.

When is the right time to start calling yourself "4G"? The wireless industry doesn't transition overnight. It takes years to upgrade a network. Until then, it starts with only a few customers who see the new speed. Then more and more over the next couple years. However, the name suggests everyone gets the benefit now. When over that multiyear period is it the right time for a company to change its marketing messages?

One thing to consider: Do people really want and need 4G today? Well, people get caught up in the whirlwind of all the marketing and always want the next best thing. That is normal. Over the next couple years, as the need for speed increases, it will matter -- but not yet.

Would you be surprised to hear there are still markets around the country that are 2.5G? There are. While the carriers focus on 4G, there are still many customers waiting for 3G. That's just the way it goes.

At any point in time, there are usually three different versions of a network. Today, we are at the end of 2.5G, and 3G is almost everywhere, and now we are introducing 4G. So how can the carriers talk about 4G like it is everywhere, trying to win customers away from competitors?

The problem is that the carriers always advertise and market and use the next G. That puts a false image on the service and in the mind of the consumer. Most customers want something they cannot yet get. It's all about image for the carriers. So customers are always wanting something they can't get for months or years. Is that really a smart marketing move for the long term?

Call It Whatever - Just Make It Fast

Most customers don't really care about these names. They just want to know their carrier is always getting better and faster.

All this chatter about 4G is just for the carriers themselves. They can't feel like their competitor is better, even for a few months, so they all give themselves names that make it sound like they are better then they really are. Sounds like teenage boys in high school, doesn't it?

This same thing happened several years ago as the networks upgraded to 3G. Now we are going through it again. And it seems to be getting worse.

Wireless is just becoming one big marketing game. In that world, don't honesty and clarity count? Is confusing the customer the only way to win?

Will this less-than-accurate marketing messaging send customers toward the doors? No, I don't think so. This is not the first time half-truths were spoken, and they are all still doing fine. However, I am learning this behavior often makes it hard to really trust what the carriers say.

So this is the world we are stuck in, I guess. Unless the carriers finally get a backbone like Ford had and start telling it like it really is. Remember the old saying: You never want to see how a hot dog is made, but you love to eat it. Maybe it's the same thing here. So pass the mustard, please.

Jeff Kagan's Pick of The Week; Verizon Wireless Offering Apple iPhone

AT&T Mobility used to be the only network in the U.S. that carried Apple's iPhone, but Verizon Wireless is jumping into the space in early February.

It will be interesting to see how Verizon Wireless will change the marketplace. What kind of impact will it have on AT&T? How many customers will AT&T lose in the process, and how many will Verizon win?

This is a big win for Apple, which can market the iPhone to millions more customers. This is a big win for Verizon Wireless, since it can now sell the popular iPhone. The big loser in this is AT&T Mobility -- but who knows what it will pull out next and market like crazy?

Jeff Kagan's Pick of the Week

All the complaints users have had with AT&T Mobility's service may start to diminish now that the pressure is being taken off its system. An interesting question is whether Verizon Wireless will start to face some of the same problems. It says it won't, but that's what AT&T has been saying all along.

The proof is in the pudding, and we will soon see. I hope this Verizon entry will give good quality service for its customers and take the pressure off AT&T so that its customers get better service than they've become used to.

Don't know the answers yet, but having two networks offering the iPhone should be better for the marketplace.


Jeff Kagan is an E-Commerce Times columnist and a wireless, telecom and technology analyst, author, speaker and consultant. Email him at jeff@jeffKAGAN.com.


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